How to be a leader when you’re not a manager

People tend to conflate leadership with supervising other people. But there’s nothing inherent to the concept of leadership that says you have to be a manager.

This article is based on a talk originally delivered at the Women in Tech Summit, a benefit for TechGirlz, a nonprofit inspiring middle school girls to explore the possibilities of technology to empower their future careers. Lauren Hasson, photo.

A title doesn’t make a person a leader. Some managers are good leaders — some aren’t. People without anyone “under” them in the org chart are capable of exhibiting leadership skills superior to many other people who have “manager” or “director” in their title.

Domain Leadership vs. People Leadership

When we hear the word “leadership,” our internal biases default to “people leadership” — managing others. But leadership is really about influence, and you can influence people without being the person who signs off on their vacation requests.

I call the other side of leadership “domain leadership” — the kind of leadership that comes with influence in a particular domain. Individual contributors, specialists, any kind of leadership that doesn’t have to do with managing people — that’s domain leadership. The cool thing about domain leadership is that you get to stay a maker — you get to to keep doing whatever it is you love doing.

And the other cool thing about it is that the future of work just might be on the domain leader’s side.

One Bain report says that 10 years from now, most of a company’s activity will be automated or outsourced:

Teams will be self-managed, leading to a vast reduction in the number of traditional managers … Employees will have no permanent bosses, but will instead have formal mentors who help guide their careers from project to project.

The report also says we’re going to start seeing new types of leadership emerge. Rather than aiming to become professional managers, top talent is going to shift to contribute directly to a company’s product or service and communicate directly with each other. And in this new type of company structure, there will be multiple tracks for career advancement.

So we’re really seeing a shift away from the need to move into people leadership to advance our careers. If we want to grow our career but keep doing the things that interest us most, that career track is more and more available to us. Which is great news.

What makes a leader?

Let’s look at a few expert opinions of what it means to be a leader — and I’ll give you a hint: none of them have to do with supervising others.

The management guru Peter Drucker said:

“All the effective leaders I have encountered — both those I worked with and those I merely watched — knew four simple things:
- a leader is someone who has followers;
- popularity is not leadership, results are;
- leaders are highly visible, they set examples;
- leadership is not rank, privilege, titles or money, it is responsibility.”

John C. Maxwell, who wrote The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, said:

“The true measure of leadership is influence, nothing more and nothing less.”

But where does influence come from? Leadership consultant George Ambler says:

“Influence doesn’t come from position. Influence comes from caring for others. If you don’t care for people, you cannot influence them. If you cannot influence others, you cannot lead. It’s through relationships that leaders gain influence.
“Developing influence means making the decision to care for others. Leaders care about the impact their actions have on others. Leaders care about the quality of their relationships. Leaders care about the kind of contribution they’re making to others and to the world.”

So if leadership is influence, and influence is caring about people, then that’s what it takes to be a leader: Caring about others, caring about your relationships and the impact you have on the world around you.

Leaders exist at all levels of an organization. It’s not about titles. It’s about influence, and you gain influence by caring about others.

10 things successful leaders do

Let’s take a look at what that looks like in practice — building influence by caring about people.

1. Leaders say thank you

People thrive at work when they feel like their work has meaning, and one of the simplest ways you can contribute to other people thriving at work is to recognize them.

Think about what channels are available to you where you can start thanking people for their work: publicly (e.g., in Slack or in a meeting) and privately (e.g., via email or in person).

Maybe even set aside a short block of time each week to thank and recognize people until it becomes a habit.

2. Leaders encourage, engage and amplify others

Jack Welch, the Chair and CEO of GE, said:

“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.”

Think about what it is you have to offer, and how you can offer that to team members across your organization.

Lara Hogan wrote a great post about the difference between mentorship and sponsorship, where she argues that what underrepresented folks really need isn’t advice — mentorship — but opportunity and visibility — sponsorship. She says that to sponsor someone, what you need to do is:

1. Learn the opportunities you have to raise people’s names each week.
 2. Find a person to sponsor.
 3. Listen to their experiences, learn about their skills and how they want to grow.
 4. Raise your sponsee’s name in those opportunities.

You don’t need to be a manager to do this. Here are some examples that Hogan says she’s seen work in real life:

- suggesting someone who could be a good lead on a new project based on their experience in this codebase, solving these kinds of problems, or past demonstration of effectiveness getting work out the door on time
- suggesting someone be a postmortem facilitator, or another type of visible leader in a meeting where others are learning
- suggesting someone who could write a new blog post for the engineering blog about their recent project, approach to a tricky problem, or solution that other companies could learn from
- suggesting someone to give a talk at a company or team meeting in which they demonstrate their work
- forwarding their email summary of a project to a different group of people than the original audience, underscoring why it was interesting or what you learned from it
- asking someone’s manager if you can share feedback about some of their excellent work you witnessed
- mentioning or sharing someone’s work in Slack that you thought was helpful, interesting, etc.
- citing an interesting thing you learned from someone recently to a large group of influential folks

Real leaders lift others up, and share credit. They look for opportunities to shout out the good work of others.

Think about how can you be a cheerleader for someone who’s not sure they can do something. How can you be a champion for someone earlier in their career than you are, or without as much experience in a certain area?

3. Leaders manage up

How does your boss like to be communicated to? If you’re great at writing detailed emails but your boss always skims those and misses things — maybe face-to face meetings are a better bet. How do they like to be pitched to? What are their priorities — what do they have to answer for, and how can you make them look good?

Margaret Magnarelli, VP of Marketing at monster, told Chief Content Officer magazine that the way she got her boss to invest in her and her program was by figuring out what kept him up at night and solving for that, as opposed to solely focusing on her own goals:

“I came into my role as head of B2C content with the perception that driving job searches was my number one priority. And it was, but … early conversations I had with my CMO made me realize he had something else in his craw: We were getting millions of unique visitors to content pages each month and then losing access to those people when they bounced. While I was still keen on building conversions to job searches, I also made his problem my problem … it gained me a lot of respect from my boss — and I believe that achievement made him my ally.”

Do you know what your boss’s major pain point is? What’s keeping your leadership team up at night? If not, figure it out and make it your mission to help solve for it.

4. Leaders embrace learning

Leaders embrace learning and actively develop their skills and knowledge.

When you’re setting long-term career goals, try to to think in terms of things you haven’t done before. Where are the gaps in your knowledge; where do you have more opportunity for growth? Focus on that, and set aside some time in the future to look at how that’s going and what to set your sights on what’s next.

Think how fast you could accelerate if you were to dedicate just 30 minutes a day to actively developing or learning new skills.

Some employers even offer education stipends or benefits — if you have access to that but aren’t using it, start!

5. Leaders stay positive

Strong leaders focus on what can be done rather than what can’t. By adopting a positive outlook you can leverage that positivity to increase your influence.

When you hear a new idea, instead of “that won’t work,” start thinking in terms of “what would it take to make this work? How can I help?”

When you don’t like something, instead of griping or venting about it, think about how you could fix it.

6. Leaders speak up

Maybe the concept of visibility — making yourself heard, making yourself known, having a “personal brand” — makes you wince a little. But really, it’s just about speaking up and claiming your seat at the table.

Share what you know with others — maybe in a blog, on a podcast or in a newsletter. Consider maintaining a professional Twitter and/or LinkedIn presence, participating in community Slack channels, attending meetups and making connections in your community.

7. Leaders think big picture

How clear is your understanding of your organization’s greater goals and what your role is in helping bring that picture to reality?

In Lateral Leadership: Getting It Done When You Are Not the Boss, Roger Fisher and Alan Sharp write:

“People accomplish the most when they have a clear set of objectives. It follows that any group’s first order of business is to write down exactly what it hopes to achieve. The person who asks the question “Can we start by clarifying our goals here?” — and who then assumes the lead in discussing and drafting those goals — is automatically taking a leadership role, whatever his or her position.”

Fisher and Sharp also encourage would-be leaders to “think systematically”:

“Observe your next meeting: people typically plunge right into the topic at hand and start arguing over what to do. Effective leaders, by contrast, learn to think systematically — that is, they gather and lay out the necessary data, analyze the causes of the situation, and propose actions based on this analysis. In a group, leaders help keep participants focused by asking appropriate questions. Do we have the information we need to analyze this situation? Can we focus on figuring out the causes of the problem we’re trying to solve?”

8. Leaders embrace feedback

Regarding giving feedback, Fisher and Sharp advise:

“If you’re not the boss, what kind of feedback can you provide? One thing that’s always valued is simple appreciation — “I thought you did a great job in there.” Sometimes, too, you’ll be in a position to help people improve their performance through coaching. Effective coaches ask a lot of questions: “How did you feel you did on this part of the project?” They recognize that people may try hard and fail anyway: “What made it hard to accomplish your part of the task?” They offer thoughtful suggestions for improvement, being careful to explain the observation and reasoning that lie behind them.”

And as far as soliciting and receiving feedback, Claire Lew, CEO of Know Your Company, has some great input. She says people don’t like to give feedback but they love to give advice. It makes people feel valued when you ask them for advice.

She recommends asking specific questions like “Do you have any advice about how we should handle recruitment?” or “Do you have advice about how to prepare for our client meetings?” This technique works because people love giving advice. Everyone likes to think of themselves as an expert and to share their perspective.”

And when you listen to and then act on advice, you get good ideas and you build relationships.

9. Leaders grow thick skins

I don’t mean to suggest that you shouldn’t report egregious behavior, or let some slimy coworker get away with anything. If something bad is happening to you at work, by all means, report it.

But with petty slights, annoyances, and that sort of thing … sometimes, the solution is to stop caring. Take a deep breath. Rise above it. Pick your battles and let the smaller stuff roll off your back. HR isn’t the principal’s office, and if you can’t suppress that inclination to vent every time so-and-so does something irritating, you run the risk of earning a reputation as a whiner.

Do you have a team member who comes to you to vent about every little thing someone did that annoys them? Don’t you kind of want to say, yeah, that’s annoying, but hey, amigo, shake it off. You are bigger than this. … ?

When someone slights a leader, the leader might feel it for a minute, but then shrug and say, so what? Because they’ve got bigger fish to fry.

10. Leaders share and teach

When people come to you for help, rather than doing it for them, do you take the extra time to walk them through it, step by step? Do you document and share that same knowledge with everyone else who might need it?

This is a great way to build a reputation as a domain leader — think about where your knowledge sharing opportunities are. Can you record a screencast demonstrating something you’ve created, narrate it, and share it with your colleagues? When you get back from conferences or meetups, do you think about how what you’ve learned applies to your whole company and the goals you’re chasing, and share it with as large an audience at your company as is appropriate?

What’s something you’ve taught more than one person? A while ago, I realized that a lot of guest authors I work with struggle with writing conclusions, and I often talk to them about what makes for a good conclusion. Then I thought: lots of people probably struggle with this. So I wrote a blog post about how to write conclusions that don’t suck.

You don’t even have to share your own ideas! Share things you find interesting — in Slack workspaces, on Twitter and LinkedIn and other channels — and people will start to look to you as a curator of useful information.


Think about the person at your organization who everyone looks up to but who doesn’t manage anyone. What are they doing right? What makes that person a leader?